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Back in the mid-70s Nikon made a 6/2.8 fisheye lens that captured a 220° circular image, which is 40° wider than the standard-issue 180° fisheyes manufactured today. Weighing in at 11 lbs, it had a front element the shape and size of a small goldfish bowl (9.3") and all-but-dwarfed the Nikon F hanging off the back of it. You could actually see behind the camera. And it could be had for about $13,500 in 1975 Yankee dollars.
Fast forward 35 years and I find myself palming a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1, a sub-compact bridge camera with a 9.1Mp Super Exmor CMOS sensor (1/2.4"), full-res burst-rates of up to 10 fps, a 20x Sony G-series optically-stabilized zoom lens, and a long list of features you'd expect to find nowadays on bridge-style digicams.
And guess what? The Sony Cyber-shot HX1 can capture 224° horizontal panoramic images (or 154° vertical) by simply setting the camera's top-mounted command dial to Panorama mode and while monitoring the image path on the HX1's LCD screen, compose your picture, press the shutter button and pan the camera in the direction of the arrow on the screen. Not too fast, and not too slow.
What you get for all this 'effort' is a single 22Mb, 224° wide-field photographic image detailed enough to make you want to finally order that wide-format inkjet printer you've been pipe-dreaming about. And it's way smaller, way lighter, and about $13,000 less costly than Nikon's monstrous fisheye.
The camera accomplishes this impressive feat by firing dozens of closely spaced exposures (My guess is 75-80), which are quickly processed, analyzed by the camera's BIONZ image microprocessor and in less time than it takes to read this sentence, stitched together into a single, continuous image. As for the proper pan speed, the camera lets you know if you're going too fast or too slow by aborting the exposure (but saving what you did capture) and flashing a message on the camera's LCD to slow down or speed up. After 2 or 3 tries you get the hang of it.
For the broadest angle-of-view, pan the camera while holding it vertically, which takes full advantage of the 28mm side of the zoom range. The result is an image that's taller but narrower. The file size also jumps from a bit over 22Mb for a horizontal pan to a bit under 28Mb for a vertical pan.
The camera also balks if you stray too far off course, though with a bit of practice you can learn to fool the sensors and bend the rules of perspective so-to-speak. (I have to thank fellow B&H trooper David Flores, a certified rule-bender for that creative tip.)
The HX1's panorama mode does have a few visual quirks that appear when shooting moving objects (or zigzagging while panning). Because the camera captures images incrementally, objects (people, taxis, etc) moving in the same direction as the pan direction have a stroboscopic, David Hockney-ish look about them, while objects moving in the opposite direction become truncated. But this is he nature of the beast and at the end of the day the Sony HX1 stirs the creative juices by making you want to go out and take pictures. Besides, it's fun truncating taxis and strangers.
Another interesting bit of imaging technology you won't find in anybody-else's digicam is the 'Hand-held Twilight' mode, which addresses the challenge of capturing sharp, low-light photographs without having to switch on the flash. When set to Hand-held Twilight mode the Sony HX1 fires a rapid succession of 6 exposures, analyzes the data, and instead of stitching the images, selects the sharpest, best-detailed and exposed portions of each of the 6 images and combines them into a single optimized exposure.
In practice this in-camera 'Layering' delivered as promised; it produced sharper-looking (though noticeably noisier) images than the same image captured at the camera's widest aperture (f/2.8), with Auto ISO, and Image Stabilization running in the background. In some cases there was a split-diffusion look to the images with certain portions of the image being quite sharp and other, less contrasty areas going somewhat chalky. Nonetheless, the technology works and certainly makes it easy to capture images under low light conditions.
The camera's zoom lens is a Sony G-series 5 to 100/2.8~5.2 (28 to 560 mm equivalent). It contains 13 elements in 10 groups including 1 ED glass element and 1 aspheric element, and does a fine job throughout the focal range even when shooting 'normal' pictures. The zoom range is quite substantial, and with the exception of a somewhat frisky power zoom control, performed admirably.
JPEGs can be recorded in a choice of 7 levels of compression (4 in panorama mode). Video fans will be pleased to know this nifty digicam is also capable of capturing HD 1080p video clips as well as 720p and VGA, all at 30fps. For sound the camera has dual stereo mics located between the pop-up flash and the EVF.
Depending on the lighting conditions ISO ratings can be set from 125 to 3200 with increased (but tolerable) noise levels showing up as you increase the degree of sensitivity. For composing images you can choose between the camera's 3" (230,400-dot) Clear Photo swivel-mounted LCD or the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which I found easier to deal with than EVFs used on comparably-priced bridge cameras. And although somewhat 'iffy' for manual focusing, it's still better under bright daylight conditions than squinting at the camera's LCD.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 accepts Memory Stick PRO Duo cards (there's also about 11Mb on built-in memory) and powers off an InfoLITHIUM H battery that according to Sony should snag you about 390 still images or up to 195 minutes of video recording before needing a charge.